Hawaiʻi: an island paradise with balmy beaches, lush palms, and carefree locals. Or so many tourists believe. But that’s far from the complex reality: a nation with its own vibrant culture and history, long haunted by newcomers’ desire to possess and belong to it — from Captain Cook to the United States government.
The French fashion label Jacquemus’s decision to stage their latest fashion show on the island of Oʻahu could be viewed as another manifestation of that desire. Yet unlike countless brands and individuals, Jacquemus was refreshingly aware and respectful of their visitor role — and worked to ensure their visit to Hawaiʻi was more beneficial than harmful.
In an Instagram story introducing the “Le Splash” collection, the brand stated: “As a guest to Hawaiʻi, Jacquemus is taking great care to respect this location, culture, and way of life.” While many brands don’t go beyond this type of statement, Jacquemus backed it with action: “We are primarily working with talent and businesses from Oʻahu and the neighboring islands to leave as small of a footprint as possible.” This approach colored everything from the runway (a minimal blue strip of fabric laid on the sand) to the casting (models from Hawaiʻi) to the guest list (VIPs from the Pacific region and US mainland, including Hawaiʻi locals Bretman Rock and Nicole Scherzinger).
The statement also notes that designer Simon Porte Jacquemus “has long wished to visit the islands.” But instead of using the trip to play out a tropical fantasy, the designer deferred to residents. While the brand shared photos of popular local spots on Instagram, it didn’t name or geotag them, protecting them from tourist overcrowding. Each post also painstakingly used Hawaiian spelling, including the ‘okina, the glottal stop that punctuates words like Oʻahu and Hawaiʻi.
The key distinction in Jacquemus’s approach to tourism is his partnership with local talent, from the models (some of them walking in their first show) to a creative team spearheaded by Ben Perreira and Taylor Okata. Crucially, he didn’t use the locale as a mere backdrop: he worked closely with those who know the islands best to ensure a respectful, mutually beneficial collaboration. And rather than drawing on the racist “tribal” clichés that high fashion labels have been known to exploit, the fresh “Le Splash” collection played on the Hawaiian environment: its “awe-inspiring landscapes, diverse climates, and untold biodiversity,” according to the designer.
Tourism is starkly transactional: visitors pay to experience the land, so locals ostensibly benefit economically. But local sentiments toward tourism are far more complex and varied than the obliging welcome that many tourists expect. In a recent survey, just 53% of residents said tourism has been more beneficial than harmful. While residents may accept the current economic reliance on tourism, many dream of a future that doesn’t prioritize tourism over locals’ wellbeing.
Jacquemus’s approach of minimizing impact, respecting local culture, and working to ensure local benefit is unfortunately rare. “While many visitors to Hawaiʻi are respectful, most feel entitled to the land and culture,” says Native Hawaiian writer and model Leah Loudermilk. “Though many locals believe that tourism benefits Hawaiʻi's economy, I think it's important to consider the implications of these benefits. Dependence on tourism has strengthened the presence of the US military, exacerbated the Hawaiian diaspora, and dwindled our natural resources, which are vital to our culture.”
Many tourists simply never consider that they might have a negative impact, and this is partly due to a total lack of awareness of Hawaiian history. For example, many don’t know that not all Hawaiʻi residents are “Hawaiian” — only Native Hawaiians, Kānaka Maoli, are referred to thus. Other residents are described as locals or kamaʻāina. This seemingly minor distinction is connected to a complex history of colonization and displacement. Similarly, the pop culture commercialization of Hawaiian concepts like aloha “is so far removed from any cultural context that it is, literally, meaningless,” as the late Hawaiian poet and activist Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask wrote.
So how does one become a responsible tourist? Local activist Kyle Kajihiro offered good advice for prospective visitors to the New York Times, saying tourists should first “interrogate this notion that Hawaii is somehow a place for them. If you are thinking about coming here, ask yourself: Who are you in relation to this place? Are you bringing something that will be of value to the host, the people who live here? What will be your impact and your legacy?".
And as long as tourism is a necessary part of the Hawaiian economy, brands who are considering how to be thoughtful visitors should look to Jacquemus for a new, higher standard. As the French brand demonstrated, with respect, collaboration, and thoughtfulness, brands can make “Le Splash” they seek without staining the fabric of the islands.
Credit photo: GettyImages
Written by Katey Laubscher